Tag Archives: inquiry

The Structure of Parabolas

A year ago, I first envisioned and then taught the parabola as the sum of a parabola and a line.The standard form parabola, ax2 + bx + c, is the result of a line with slope b and y-intercept c added to a parabola with a vertex at the origin, with vertical stretch a.   This insight came after my realization that a parabola is the product of two lines (although I wrote this up later than the first).

I didn’t teach algebra 2 last semester, so I’ve only now been able to try my new approach. I taught functions as described in the second link. So the students know the vertex form of the parabola. Normally, I would then move to the product of two lines, binomial multiplication, and then teach the standard form, moving back to factoring.

But I’ve been mulling this for a few months, and decided to try teaching standard form second. So first, as part of parent functions, cover vertex form. Then linear equations. As part of linear equations, I teach them how to add and subtract functions.  As an exercise, I show them that they can add and subtract parabolas and lines, too.

So after the linear equations unit, I gave them a handout:parabolastructure

I don’t do much introduction here, except to tell them that the lighter graphs are a simple parabola and a line. The darker graph is the sum of the parabola and the line. What they are to do is explore the impact of the line’s slope, the b, on the vertex of the parabola, both the x and y values. We’d do that by evaluating the rate of change (the “slope” between two points of a non-linear equation) and looking for relationships.

Now, I don’t hold much truck with kids making their own discoveries. I want them to discover a clear pattern. But this activity also gives the kids practice at finding slopes, equations of lines, and vertex forms of a parabola. That’s why I felt free to toss this activity together. Even if it didn’t work to introduce standard form, it’d be a good review.

But it did work.  Five or six students finished quickly,  found the patterns I wanted, and I sent them off to the next activity. But most finished  the seven parabolas in about 40 minutes or so and we answered the questions together.


  1. Using your data, what is the relationship between the slope of the line added (b) and the slope (rate of change) from the y-intercept to the vertex?
    Answer: the slope (b) is twice the slope from the y-intercept to the vertex.
    b2= rate of change
  2. What is the relationship between the slope of the line added (b) and the x-value of the vertex?
    Answer: the x value of the vertex is the slope of the line divided by negative 2.
    b⁄-2= x value of the vertex
  3. What is the relationship between the y-intercept of the line and the y-intercept of the parabola?
    Answer: they are the same.

Note: I made it very clear that we were dealing only with a=1, no stretch.

The activity was very useful–even some strong kids screwed up slope calculations because they counted graph hash marks rather than looking at the numbers. Some of the graphs went by 2s.

So then, they got a second handout: parabolastructure2

Here, they will find the slope (rate of change!) from the y-intercept to the vertex and double it. That’s the slope of the line added to the parabola (b!). The y-intercept of the line is the same as the parabola.

The first example, on the left, has a -2 rate of change from vertex to y-intercept. Since a=1, that means b=-4. The y-intercept is 8. The equation in standard form is therefore
x2 -4x + 8. In vertex form, it’s (x-2)2 +4.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish up this handout and go onto the next step: no graph, just a standard form equation. So given y=x2 -8x + 1, you know that the rate of change is -4, and the x-value of the vertex is 4. Draw a vertical line at x=4, then sketch a line with a slope of -4 beginning at (0,1).

This may seem forced, but students really have no idea how b influences the position of the vertex. I’m hoping this will start them off understanding the format of the standard form. If not, well, there’s the whole value of practicing slope and vertex form I can fall back on. But so far, it’s working really well.

By late tomorrow or Monday, we’ll be formalizing these rules and determining how an increase or decrease in a changes these relationships. So I hope to have them easily graphing parabolas in standard form by Monday. Yes, I’ll show them they can just plug x to find y.

Then we’ll talk about factored form, and go to binomial multiplication.

I’ll try to report back.